Vietnam-born Lurgan man Vance McElhinney shares his remarkable life story with ‘MAIL’ reporter Graeme Cousins

Vance McElhinney is enjoying life again.
Vance McElhinney is enjoying life again.
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Vietnam orphan Vance McElhinney is the first to admit he’s made his fair share of mistakes with his choices in life.

Born in Vietnam, Vance was airlifted out of the war-torn country as a baby before being adopted and brought to Lurgan.

The photo used to seek adoptive parents for Vance.

The photo used to seek adoptive parents for Vance.

He tells how he has spent the majority of his life as an outsider, turning to alcohol, gambling, womanising and criminality to cope with his crisis of identity which stems from having no memory of his parents or his country of origin.

At the age of 40 Vance has found redemption and is now preparing himself for a trip back to Vietnam.

Vance said: “I think I was eight months old when I left Vietnam. I had to be smuggled out of the country. There was a lot of red tape to get through, which is why they put us on a plane and got us out of there to cut through the red tape.

“I was 18 months when I came to Lurgan from the orphanage in West Sussex. When I came over here I was given an MOT in a sense. I had an ulcer and was virtually deaf in one ear. My teeth were all bad and I had scabies. I was in and out of hospital for four or five years.”

Vance was adopted by MBE recipient Cyril McElhinney and his wife Liz who is a Canon with the Church of Ireland. Vance was brought up as part of a Christian family alongside brothers Stephen and David.

He said: “I went to Shankill Parish Church and youth groups attached to the church. I had a good childhood, I was happy, but I did suffer from nightmares and I was afraid of the dark. To this day I still am a wee bit afraid of the dark.”

Vance went to school at King’s Park, Lurgan Boys’ Junior High and Lurgan College of Further Education (The Tech).

He said: “I really enjoyed primary school, but the junior high was when I first realised not everybody liked me. The only reason I was picked on was because of the colour of my skin. It was a new thing for me.

“I enjoyed the rugby and hockey. I could have done something with myself with the hockey but it was an opportunity I didn’t take.”

He continued: “I messed about in school. I chose fun rather than work. I’m paying for that today. I got into the wrong crowd back then and the same thing happened again later in life.”

At The Tech Vance trained to be a chef. He said: “The only reason I became a chef is because there was 17 girls and only two fellas in the class, the questions were multiple choice and even then I cheated in the exam. In saying that I grew to really like being a chef and I worked in a lot of different cafes and restaurants.”

At the age of 18 Vance joined Christian organisation Youth With A Mission. He said: “I stayed with them for three years working all over Europe. It was around this time I was battling with my identity and I had to leave.”

Vance moved to Scotland and then England, eventually settling in Luton.

He recalled: “I got a job as a care worker and then a social worker. I wanted to give something back in the same way my parents had. I was given a second chance and I wanted to help other people get a second chance.”

While things started well for Vance in Luton, his life quickly spiralled out of control.

He said: “I started to hang about with a bad crowd.

“I was drinking heavily and ended up destroying myself through gambling. I was spending half my wages in the casino.

“I felt like a somebody when I was in the casino. They treated me with respect, like a king. For the first time in my life I felt like I fitted in.

“I became Vinny when I was over in England, after Vinny Jones because I was a hard man.”

He continued: “One evening I went into the casino with £130 knowing that it had to last me the next two weeks. I sat there from 8pm to 4am and all my numbers came in for me. I had to be escorted out of the casino with £7,000 in cash.

“The downside was I lost more than £5,000 one night without even having enough money left for the bus home.

“One night I spent 20 hours in the casino and just got totally bored. It was then I realised I needed help. I joined Gamblers Anonymous. I stopped gambling for eight months. It was a quick fix.

“I started running a pub, which I was using as a front for other illegal activities. That was a very bad time for me, though at the time I didn’t realise it.

“I was living the high life like a celebrity. I was on first name terms in all the best restaurants, I drove a BMW convertible and had a string of model girlfriends on my arm.

“Even at the peak there was still something missing and that was my identity.

“Everything came crashing down very quickly. I lost the house, lost my wife, my job - I lost everything.

“The only person to blame was myself.

“It came to the point where I had to leave Luton. There were too many people after me.”

He headed for Lurgan to pick up the pieces.

Vance, who has had two failed marriages, said: “I came back from England a broken person. It was a low point in my life. I was annoyed about being adopted and I was angry at God.

“I got a house on the Avenue Road and tried to get myself back on track.

“I linked up with old friends. Ian Taylor and his wife Laura have been very good friends to me. Ian’s been my friend for 35 years. If it hadn’t been for those two I would have been in a worse state than what I was.

“I joined the church again and got involved in youth work.

“I reconciled with my parents. It will come as a bit of surprise for my mum to read that I love her. I’m not an emotional person. I lost one set of parents and I think that’s why I don’t like to get emotionally attached.

“I’m forever indebted to Cyril and Liz. It makes me sad to think of what I’ve put them through. They’ve not always agreed with the choices I’ve made, but they’ve stood by me through everything.”

Vance concluded: “Now I feel it’s the right time, at the age of 40, to go back to Vietnam. The time is right to finish the journey.

“I have to lay the ghosts of the past to rest and feel what it’s like to be in the majority not the minority. I need to be with my own people and not be judged because of my colour.

“Whether I find my parents or relatives or not is irrelevant. I couldn’t have asked for a better set of parents and brothers than I’ve got in Lurgan.

“If I feel at home and feel I fit in for the first time I’ll stay there. I’ve messed up 20 years of my life, I won’t be messing up the next 20.”

Vance has begun writing his memoirs in recent years, which he hopes to publish as a book following his visit to Vietnam. He’s on the hunt for a publisher and anyone interested can contact him at via kelticmelhinney@gmail.com or through Facebook.